Even if you use it for nothing else, use OneDrive for this.
In previous articles, I looked at two backup techniques:
- Creating an image backup
- Setting up File History to back up files that change regularly to an external drive
This is all good — but we can do better still.
Best practices for a robust backup strategy call for keeping a backup copy offsite. OneDrive, included as part of Windows, can do that automatically.
We’ll set up OneDrive and make a couple of changes to other applications to make our use of OneDrive for backing up nearly transparent.
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OneDrive as backup
- You’ll need a Microsoft account to use OneDrive.
- OneDrive is included in Windows 10 and 11 and can be downloaded and installed on older versions of Windows.
- Setting up OneDrive creates a OneDrive folder on your PC.
- OneDrive automatically copies whatever files and folders you place in that OneDrive folder to the cloud (and your other PCs).
- Setting OneDrive as the default location to save documents makes using it transparent.
Microsoft account and connectivity
You’ll need a Microsoft account to use OneDrive.
You may already use one to log into your PC. If you’re logging in with an email address — particularly if it’s a @hotmail.com, @outlook.com, @msn.com, or other Microsoft-provided email domain — you already have one.
If not, and you don’t have a Microsoft account at all, I’d recommend visiting outlook.com and signing up for a new account. It’s free.
You will also need to be online for OneDrive to work. It’s best if you’re constantly connected, but it’ll work with an intermittent connection as well. As with all things online, the faster the better.
OneDrive is standard in Windows. In fact, it’s downright difficult to remove.
If OneDrive has not yet been set up, you’ll often get a notification to “finish” setting it up or an indication that you’re “Not signed in”, and the taskbar icon may have a line through it.
If you don’t see the icon, you may need to click the “Show hidden icons” carat (^ — not present above) to make the OneDrive icon appear in the notification area.
Click the OneDrive icon to launch the setup process.
Setting up OneDrive
First, you’ll be asked for the email address you use with your Microsoft account. Type it in and click Sign in.
Once signed in, you’ll be shown the location of your OneDrive folder with the option to change that location.
Unless you have a specific reason to change it — such as placing it on a different drive — leaving it at the default location is fine. That location will be “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive”, where “<login id>” is replaced with your log-in identifier. In the example above, that’s “askle”. That puts the OneDrive folder alongside other folders you may commonly use:
- C:\Users\<login id>\Documents
- C:\Users\<login id>\Downloads
- C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive
- C:\Users\<login id>\Pictures
You’ll be presented with a list of folders and OneDrive’s offer to back them up.
I strongly suggest you turn them all off. As outlined in my article The Problem With OneDrive Backup, it’s just not something you want to enable, as it causes so much confusion and permanently alters your folder layout.
Once you turn them all off, the button labeled “I’ll do it later” turns to “OK”. Click that.
That’s it! Well, you may be presented with some “Isn’t OneDrive wonderful?” marketing and informational messages, but it’s set up. OneDrive is at work.
What OneDrive does for backing up
After setting it up, you might be wondering why we bothered with all that. What’s in it for us?
At its most basic, OneDrive operates similarly to other cloud storage services: what’s in your OneDrive folder on your hard drive is a mirror — a copy — of what’s in your OneDrive account online, and vice-versa.
Great. What’s that mean?
- Any time you add or update a file or folder within the OneDrive folder on your machine, it is automatically uploaded to OneDrive online.
- Any time a file appears or is updated in OneDrive online, it’s automatically downloaded to the OneDrive folder on your machine.
That’s it. The file is available in both locations, and you can use it in either.
I’m going to completely ignore the second in this article and focus entirely on the first: whenever you add or change something in the OneDrive folder on your machine, it’s automatically uploaded.
Or to put it another way: it’s automatically backed up to the cloud.
Leveraging OneDrive transparently
The easiest way to make sure OneDrive is always backing up your work is to always keep your work in a OneDrive folder.
That means instead of creating your new documents (or Pictures, or Music, or whatever) in your “Documents” folder, create them in your OneDrive folder. Then, every time you hit “Save”:
- The document is updated in the OneDrive folder on your disk.
- The document is uploaded to your OneDrive account online.
Put another way, every time you hit Save, your document is also backed up to the cloud. Your PC could be destroyed, but your document(s) will still be there, online, in your OneDrive account.
The easiest way to create all your new work within OneDrive is to change the default folder your applications use. Unfortunately, that’s not a global setting; it’s something you need to locate and change for each application.
Some applications remember the last folder you used and automatically use that folder again the next time you create or save a document. Others don’t remember at all, and you need to remember to save your document to your OneDrive folder. Others, like Microsoft Word (shown below), have options buried in advanced settings that allow you to change the default location.
The default will almost certainly be “C:\Users\<login id>\Documents.” You want to modify that to be “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive”. If you’re like me and like to keep things organized, you might create a folder within your OneDrive folder — perhaps “MyWordDocuments” — and set the default location to “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\MyWordDocuments”. Now all the new documents you create will:
- Be created in OneDrive.
- Live in the OneDrive folder on your computer.
- Be automatically uploaded every time you click on “Save” or exit the program.
It may seem like a little hassle to locate the options within the programs you use most often, but it’s something you only need to do once, and it’ll pay off every time you need to grab a file from your OneDrive online backup.
OneDrive can be an important part of your overall backup strategy.
Consider using it. If you make changes you don’t like or accidentally delete a file in the OneDrive folder on your hard drive, not to worry: you can still use the OneDrive online interface to retrieve previous copies of the file.
OneDrive is available across different devices, including phones and tablets, as well as different operating systems, including PC and Mac.
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